Santa Barbara has a plethora of bands playing our clubs and bars to keep music lovers aurally satisfied year-round. But in between hometown shows, many bands head out to cities, states, and countries to dazzle others with their playing chops. Prepping for a tour requires a lot of planning, but even so there are myriad things that can go awry. Spencer the Gardener, Soul Majestic, and S.F.-by-way-of-I.V. band Poor Man’s Whiskey have all experienced the foul-ups and miscalculations that can turn a far-flung gig into a story of mishap. Read on for accounts of a Canadian border-crossing snafu, a purple bus stuck in the redwoods, and a Mexican concert with no bass-drum pedal.
Spencer the Gardener
In the mid-1990s, before cell phones and the efficiency of finding anything and everything at a moment’s notice, we were slated to play the finale of a two-day bike race/fundraiser in Ensenada, Mexico. We were put up in a hotel for Saturday/Sunday with the show being held in a big soccer field just outside of town. We were the only band playing, and we were hosted by two radio stations — one from San Diego and one from Mexicali. So it was just Spencer the Gardener and the radio stations’ deejays. We arrived in Ensenada late Saturday afternoon, checked into the hotel, and then marched out into a crazy Mexican night.
The next day, we paraded around Ensenada, had a late breakfast, and then made our way to the show. The sound company was from Mexicali, and we were all joking around and slowly setting up, telling various stories and histories when our drummer said, “I think I forgot my bass-drum pedal.” He was kinda laughing; we figured he’d find it somewhere. A couple of minutes later he said, “Guys, I can’t find it.” It was Sunday afternoon, and all the music stores were closed. One of the sound guys said, “I have a friend,” and off he went on a mad dash to try and find a bass-drum pedal. He came back empty-handed. In the meantime, another sound guy said, “I have an idea.” He set up a keyboard and simulated the sound of a bass-drum pedal. By now we are about an hour away from start time, and a crowd was at the gates ready to come in. So a guy named Alejandro from Mexicali said, “You count four; I’ll come in and just play the bass pedal part — I’ll keep it simple, like a heartbeat.”
So that is how we did the show. It sounded a bit like those old Stars on 45 records where everything sounded like a disco remix, and after a while if that thundering keyboard bass drum wasn’t there, you were missing something. You could even feel the crowd pulsing, “like a heartbeat” as Alejandro said. Needless to say, I think that led to a three-year question of “Are you sure you have everything?” —Spencer Barnitz, vocals and guitar
Poor Man’s Whiskey
A few years back, we were driving back to San Francisco after a show up in Arcata in Humboldt County. We traveled in a 40-foot former Greyhound bus that was painted purple. The seats were removed, and we put some couches and bunks in the bus. It was late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, and we decided to do the all-night, six-hour drive so we could be home to spend Sunday with our families. Josh [Brough (harmonica, banjo, keyboards, and vocals)] was driving the bus as everyone else was crashed out sleeping.
Somewhere in Mendocino, Josh was getting sleepy and pulled off to the side of the road to find a quiet spot off the highway to rest for a few hours. The road he pulled off on kept going and turned into a steep dirt road that winded up a mountain. There was nowhere to turn around. Thirty minutes later, the road dead-ended in a redwood tree grove way up in the boonies — probably some pot farmer’s hidden driveway. Three hours later and 186 back-and-forth Y-turns, and we were able to inch the bus out of the redwood tree grove. When we finally started rolling back down to the highway in the early-morning sun, the bus was covered in scratches from the tree branches. At least we got close to some redwood trees! —Jason beard, guitar and mandolin
It was the first time we were asked to play internationally. A Washington State promoter booked us for two shows in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. The budget was really small, so we couldn’t afford to fly directly; we flew to Tacoma, Washington, and hopped on a bus for a two-and-a-half-hour ride to Whistler.
Once we were nearing our destination, a quick phone call to a family member back at home brought up an unforeseen issue — we needed work visas in order to perform and get paid. With the Canadian border approaching, we realized we needed to concoct a story. Brilliantly (or so we thought), we came up with the idea that we are going to play a private birthday party for a friend for no pay and planned to take some leisure time to ski/snowboard.
We took a public commuter bus from Tacoma to Canada, which was mostly occupied by us and a few other innocent travelers. We pulled up to the border crossing, and they quickly singled us out — seven dreaded (or at least hairy) hoodlums and a pregnant woman — and signaled for the bus driver to pull over on the Canadian side of the border. Agents then took us to a containment room and started to weed through their extensive database while we waited for hours, restricted from leaving the room, even to go to the bathroom.
In the early morning, we contacted the promoter, letting him know we had been detained and that the bus had left us behind. After hours in detainment, a few members of the Canadian border patrol opened the door. They took two of our band members into their interrogation rooms after discovering there were some old records of misdemeanor charges against them — one being a marijuana charge and another an unpaid parking ticket.
It was clear at that point that they did not want to make this easy on us. When individually asked what our business was in Whistler, we all stayed true to our story. The border agents searched the Internet to find we had a sold-out show and house party booked in Whistler.
Then things started getting messy. Our guitarist Dave Lyons had a video camera and was documenting our inhumane treatment: no bathroom breaks, no water, and no leaving the room. One of the agents noticed the camera and insisted he put it down. He did, but the agent decided that he was going to confiscate it anyway. As the agent approached Dave to take the camera, [vocalist] Oriana Sanders (six months pregnant at the time) moved between Dave and the border agent. Hands in the air and hoping to defuse the situation, she quickly became the focus of the mounting aggression.
The agent grabbed her wrist, twisted her arm behind her, and forced her to the ground shoving his knee into her back, face down on the cold ground. We all jumped up yelling, “Wait, she’s pregnant!” The agents drew their firearms and pointed them at us. It was straight out of a movie. After realizing what they had done to an innocent pregnant woman, the other Canadian border guards quickly rushed the offending agent into the back. With bruised knees and a battered sense of security, Oriana demanded an ambulance to make sure the baby was safe. The paramedics arrived, confirming everything seemed to be okay.
After the dust had settled, another agent came into the containment room. The show promoter had arrived, hoping to smooth things out. The agent then said, “The band known as Soul Majestic, and the eight of you individually, are now excluded from entering Canada for a duration of two years. You must leave the border crossing immediately and return to U.S. soil.” We were devastated. Our first sold-out show — and first international — and we got pinched at the border?! Straddling Canada and the United States, we sat on the side of the road with our musical equipment and luggage at 4 a.m., waiting for the only available local taxi to cart us two at a time between Surrey, B.C., and Blaine, Washington. We eventually made it to a U.S. motel and licked our wounds.
In the morning, we called our families and told them the situation. Little did we know that word of our experience had spread to the U.S. Embassy and NBC Canada. We had reporters and officials calling us to interview and report on the situation. Unfortunately, some band members were reluctant to expose our harrowing experience and refused to speak on the record. So we declined the offer to spread our story and invoke justice.
On the bright side, we were asked back to Canada years later; this time we hired a firm that specializes in musician work visas. When we showed up at the border, the agents were waiting for us. This time they just chuckled while waiving us through, saying, “Sounds like you had a rough experience the last time you tried to come through.” We smoothly and safely crossed the border, playing packed shows in Nelson and Whistler, B.C.
Lots of lessons were learned on that first tour, but the one we won’t forget: Get your ducks in a row before you try and cross any border! —Eric Iverson, vocals